Basic Steelheading: The Wet-Fly Swing
The wet fly swing is the classic steelhead fly fishing tactic. Here's how it's done.
he most basic summer steelhead tactic--which is probably the only steelhead tactic for 90% of fly anglers--is the traditional wet-fly, cast-swing-step. This brief article takes you through the ABCs of this tactic.
A seven- or eight-weight rod is right for most summer-run steelhead. Use a floating line; either a weight-forward fly line or a double taper will work, but the double taper will do better when you have the brush at your back and need to roll cast. A good compromise is a long-belly line such as the Wulff Triangle Taper. A nine-foot, 0X or 1X leader is sufficient for most fishing.
You'll find most western anglers using a Green Butt Skunk, Skunk, or Freight Train for summer steelhead. Other good flies to carry are the Purple Peril, Streetwalker, Skykomish Sunrise, and Marabou. Most anglers follow the adage "Bright day, bright fly; dark day, dark fly." Since most summer steelheading is done in times of low light, you're usually using a dark pattern such as a Green Butt Skunk.
The lower and clearer the river, the more subdued your fly should be. On the other hand, in early fall when a river might be murky due to a rain shower, a large bright fly, such as a Marabou, can be a good choice.
Finding Good Water
Look for water that is three to six feet deep with the current moving at the speed of a walk. Underwater structures, such as rocks and ledges, can be important, but are not essential. You will often find this kind of water downstream from a point of land or a pile of boulders.
Steelhead often will be lying in the transition zone as the current changes from fast to slow (but not in stagnant water). You should be able to reach the run by casting from shore, not from a boat. If there is a backeddy near shore, or if there is a sudden break between fast water and slow, seek a different run.
Presenting the Fly
Cast across river at about a 45-degree angle downstream. Immediately mend line (usually upstream). This helps the fly slowly cross the river with your fly line as straight as you can get it. Lead the fly slightly with the rod.
Then do nothing-don't wiggle the rod, mend line or strip line-until the fly has stopped below you. When your fly reaches the end of its swing, step downstream two-and-a-half to three feet and cast again. Cast-swing-step your way downstream until you've covered all the water in the run.
When your fly passes over a willing steelhead, the fish will follow your fly, then (maybe) take the fly in its mouth and begin to return to its lie, thus pulling the hook into the corner of its jaw. When you first feel the line tighten, swing your rod to shore. Not too fast, and don't strike! Let the fish hook itself; if you strike hard and fast you risk ripping the fly out of the fish's mouth.
Once a steelhead is hooked, hold your rod more to the side rather than vertically. This keeps side pressure on the fish so it can't get its head into the current, thus making it work harder and tire more quickly.
Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).
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